LORI ELLISONby Hovey Brock
MCKENZIE FINE ART | DECEMBER 11, 2015 – JANUARY 31, 2016
Lori Ellison’s most recent show, which includes twenty-two works on paper and twenty-three paintings on panel, largely made during the last two years of her life, marks a fitting tribute to a life dedicated to art. She died on August 1, 2015, of breast cancer, a disease she had been fighting since 2011. She did not “go gentle into that good night,” but worked furiously, staying connected to her wide community of fellow artists, right up until the end.
Ellison was very much a part of the generation of abstractionists that came into their own in Williamsburg during the ’90s. She shared with that generation a DIY aesthetic and an enduring quest for spontaneity within narrowly defined formal parameters. Her modular, systematic “doodles” recall James Siena, among other artists. Like Siena, she managed to make deceptively simple repetitive patterns come alive in a manner that defies emulation. In this particular show, the panels in a red-and-white color scheme from 2011 make the least persuasive case for her particular brand of this kind of abstraction, but against the dark background of her passing, the intensity Ellison conjures in the last works from 2014 – 2015—especially the ones on lined notebook paper—leaves shimmering traces of a talent cut down in her prime.
The red-and-white paintings from 2011 deserve scrutiny because they reveal how the subtle relationships between surface, color, and pattern in Ellison’s works contribute to their success. Whereas Siena’s paintings rely on the uniform high sheen of enamel paint to suggest a unified surface, Ellison’s paintings succeed best when they are uniformly matte. Because the acrylic surfaces in the 2011 paintings deny both of these readings, the works call attention to themselves in a way that frustrates the eye, preventing it from moving smoothly across the surface. Ellison’s hand also seems to lose its agility when handling the acrylic paint, damping down the energy each individual element brings to the overall pattern, which in turn saps the vitality of the entire composition. Untitled (2011) consists of alternating vertical bands of red and white triangles. It compares unfavorably to another work, Untitled (2015), which has a very similar pattern and color scheme. In the 2011 piece, the triangles are more uniform, whereas in the 2015 work they have much more variety, pushing in several directions at once, and varying greatly in shape; the former plods where the latter dances. In addition, the bright white of Untitled (2011) creates too much of a contrast with the red, while in the later work’s white contains more warmth, tightening the tonal values, and contributing to a more organic whole.
The 2014 – 2015 works have universally better results. They divide into gouaches on panels, and drawings, in ink or graphite, on notebook paper. Among the gouaches, many command sustained attention, particularly Untitled (2014 – 2015), which consists of a wonky, Klee-like grid of tight little circles overlaid atop a drop-dead gorgeous violet wash that causes the whole piece to slowly undulate. The way the different elements come together seems offhand, yet they work so well in concert that serendipity alone could not account for the outcome. Another gouache that delivers more than the sum of its parts consists of a crazy quilt of green and white triangles that create looping patterns. In a handful of places the triangles diminish into circular vortices of energy that set up a pulsating pattern across the entire surface. A very similar piece—again, Untitled (2014 – 2015)—which uses the exact same triangular patterns in purple and white, comes very close, but somehow lacks the dynamism of the green gouache, underscoring how the simplicity of Ellison’s pictorial elements throws the importance of every last detail into high relief.
As good as these gouaches on panel are, they don’t touch the gritty sparkle of the graphite and ink drawings on paper. The drawings possess an urgency the panels lack, and in the light of Ellison’s death, a unique poignancy, suggested in part by her humble use of materials: pen, pencil, and lined notebook paper. They also imply a practice that could take place anywhere, conjuring an image of Ellison working around the clock, in her home, maybe even sitting up in bed finishing one last detail before turning out the lights. The flimsiness of the paper, with its irregular edges, amplifies the homey informality. The drawings’ fineness of line creates an expanded sense of scale—the drawings are physically small, eleven and five eighths by eight and a quarter inches—but they feel huge.
Perhaps the best piece in the show consists of hundreds of tiny lozenges with small dots at their center that shrink as they move from the edges to the center. The outermost lozenges form a frame which stabilizes the edges, making the central mass of tiny lozenges, so small as to be barely decipherable, churn like smoke caught in a jar. The remarkable vitality of the image, as well as its startling directness, with all those eyes staring back, nicely sums up Ellison’s artistic legacy. This is one drawing that will never go gentle into that good night.